Sometimes, the humblest objects of daily use tell a tale more eloquent, more rich and complex, than anything we could gain from written records. Such is certainly the case with the material relics of the Franklin expedition. Setting aside those with greatest seeming significance -- Franklin's Hanoverian badge, the infamous dipping needle, or Des Voeux's shirtsleeve -- some of the most common items recovered have the greatest potential meaning for those attempting to reconstruct the last months of the Franklin expedition. I refer, of course to utensils -- forks, spoons, and the occasional knife -- which were recovered by many early Franklin searchers from Rae to C.F. Hall -- and which, even today, have not yet been systematically examined for what they can tell.
The utensils, most of them quality silver plate, were initially recognized on account of the family crests on their handles, which showed them to be from the families of officers such as Franklin and Crozier. Franklin's distinctive crest -- a conger eel's head between two sprigs -- was the most commonly found, suggesting that his plate had been first and widely distributed among the sailors; perhaps the most poignant of the crests was that of Fairholme -- a dove with an olive branch and the motto "Spero meliora" -- I hope for better things.
And yet there's more: on the stems and undersides of these same spoons and forks, there are found the scratched initials of other men, most of them ordinary seamen. The only explanation seems to be that, prior to the abandonment of the "Erebus" and "Terror," the silverware of the officers of both ships was distributed to the men for their use. In some cases, as with Franklin's, this was because the officer in question was deceased -- but the principal reason, doubtless, was to preserve the silver plate without burdening any one party with too large a quantity. And, since the silver plate from the officers from each ship was distributed to sailors aboard the same vessel, the discovery of a fork or a spoon -- provided its provenance can be definitely settled -- may give us a very likely indication of the path of the crew of that ship.
The pattern seems suggestive -- for instance, nearly all of the utensils recovered by McClintock at Cape Norton on the eastern coast of King William Island were connected with the "Terror" -- there were two Franklin spoons marked "WW" (William Wentzall, seaman) and WG (William Gibson, steward), both of the "Terror," along with a Crozier fork and a teaspoon of Alexander McDonald, assistant surgeon. Only one item -- a Fairholme teaspoon -- was associated with the "Erebus." One could envision that a party of men from the Terror might have camped here on there way to or from nearby Matty Island. Might this party have been on its way to some further point, perhaps Fury Beach? Frustratingly, when McClintock visited a party of Netsilingmiut near the North Magnetic Pole, which would have been near the next general transit of such a journey, he obtained mostly utensils from the "Erebus," although a lone McDonald fork was among them.
It's tempting to look at the prevalence of "Erebus" relics recovered farther south, including those obtained in 1854 at Repulse Bay by Dr. Rae, as a sign that the crew of that ship was moving in a more southerly or southwesterly direction -- and yet again, items from officers of the "Terror" crop up as well. Yet the specific provenance of any of these is highly uncertain; since the area was a crossroads for many Inuit bands, and Rae had announced a bounty for such items, they might well have come from anywhere. From the testimony he received, it was clear that none of the Inuit who turned such items in were those who originally recovered them.
What, then, of spoons or forks with very clear provenance? Alas, even when we have a utensil handed in by someone who claimed to have originally found it, the evidence is very mixed. The famous spoon offered to Schwatka, complete with the Franklin crest and a distinctive mending job where the cracked bowl had been repaired with copper, is one such example. While the giver, one Nutargeark, claimed he'd gotten it from King William Island, it later devolved that he'd more likely stolen it from a New Bedford whaling master Captain Potter, who'd been given it by "Sinuksook's wife," who'd found it somewhere northwest of Cape Englefield off the coast of the Melville Peninsula.
Nevertheless, I've always thought that a careful inventory ought to be made. While several of the utensils brought back by McClintock are catalogued at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, those retained by Dr. Rae, and given by him to the University of Edinburgh, do not seem to have been given detailed analysis (although, judging from the images on the university's website they appear, most unfortunately, to have been polished!). The spoons and fork recovered by C.F. Hall are still somewhere in a warehouse in among other relics of the defunct U.S. Armed Forces History Museum, with no online images or desctiption. And, in part due to their strong association with the Franklin saga, a fair number remain in private hands; I know of a collector in Canada who is said to be able to set out a full dinner service for six in which every plate and utensil is from either the Franklin party or one of the ships involved in the search!
Perhaps this might be an ideal project to conduct with the unique resources of the Internet -- I invite anyone with images or knowledge of such utensils to contact me, either by posting here or privately.